CHICAGO — Pop Up Grocer is dropping anchor in Chicago’s Wicker Park beginning April 30. The monthlong retail concept will feature hundreds of products from innovative food, beverage, home, pet and body care brands, plus a daily selection of pastries from in-store cafe partner Elske. 

Founder Emily Schildt, previously a branding and marketing consultant with a decade of consumer packaged goods industry experience, described Pop Up Grocer as “the first experience-oriented grocery store” and a destination where shoppers discover new products from the “buzziest brands on Instagram.” Since launching two years ago, Pop Up Grocer has opened shops in New York, Los Angeles and Austin, Texas. A portion of profits from sales are donated to The Pop Up Grocer Fund, which supports emerging consumer products brands.

New categories debuting at the Chicago outpost are baking mixes and non-alcoholic beverages, both inspired by recent consumer trends. Products on the shelves include sprouted buckwheat snacks, plant-based queso, organic grain-free pizza bites, mushroom jerky and Lebanese-style garlic dips.

Ms. Schildt said the team plans its locations about six months ahead of opening and builds the pop-up shop in just five days.

“By nature of traveling to various cities, local brands get very excited at the opportunity to participate in our concept, and we love providing a portion of local products to highlight to the area’s residents and visitors,” she said. “But we’re not by any means a local concept. In fact, I would say it’s the opposite. We try to help brands from outside the area penetrate the market and establish themselves in the city in which we visit.”

Brands may apply to be featured in future concepts at Ms. Schildt shared additional details in a recent interview.

Food Business News: How do you choose which products to include at Pop Up Grocer?

Emily Schildt, founder of Pop Up GrocerEmily Schildt: As far as our product selection, we have three driving criteria. The first is the weightiest and most important to us, which is, is the product novel? Is it doing something new and different? Is it taking an innovative approach to sustainability, to presenting an ingredient we’re familiar with in a new format? Does the brand have a compelling founder story? Is the founder a person of color, a woman, someone otherwise underrepresented or underresourced? That’s where we spend the most time as far as our sourcing filters.

If it’s a food product, we look at the nutrition… and we look at the ingredients. Are they sourcing responsibly?

The third is about aesthetics or appearance. We look at the packaging. Of course, that’s subjective to what we like, but generally I would say we look for it to be pleasing and attractive.

How do you personally discover new brands?

Ms. Schildt: We are very fortunate to have worked with a lot of brands who refer us to others in the network. We spend all day on Instagram scouring for new products that maybe to date have only been in the hands of influencers or only have a profile page; they don’t even have a website yet. And we get a lot of inbound inquiries through our website and other digital channels.

How has the concept fared during the pandemic? Did you open any pop-ups last year?

Ms. Schildt: We had three last year. As it turns out a traveling grocery store is quite a good pandemic business. We’ve been super fortunate that going to the grocery store is a behavior people have maintained. Because we’re an essential business, we are one of the few events to remain on people’s calendars as well.

That’s not to say we haven’t been affected by the pandemic. Of course, we have. Our brands have all been affected. Their marketing budgets have been slashed. Some of their expansion plans have changed, and thus they might not be interested in taking part in a location anymore. We’ve had to change in-store operations. I learned what a sneeze guard is. We’ve been able to maintain our presence and our plans for the most part, and for that we’re grateful.

Why 30 days?

Ms. Schildt: We started with 10; 10 was too short. Thirty is, we think, just enough time to allow people to visit us while also maintaining a sense of urgency.

What’s next for Pop Up Grocer?

Ms. Schildt: We want to maintain and further our reputation as the tastemaker in CPG. We’re going to continue to pop up in various cities across the country. We’re also building our first permanent location in New York that we hope will open on schedule for Q4 of this year. We’re going to build out our e-comm channel, where we sell curated boxes of the assortment of items we feature inside our stores. Etc. Stay tuned.